Hamas strikes at heart of peace talks

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YESTERDAY'S bomb in the bus station at Hadera has gone some way towards achieving a political objective of Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement - to torpedo the peace process - by further weakening political support for the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, the only man capable today of steering Israel down the road of peace.

While Mr Rabin voiced the expected condemnation of the killings, he again insisted that the only solution to violence lay in a negotiated deal with the Palestinians. Nevertheless, with the death-toll rising, Mr Rabin's determination to withstand public attack, and continue the peace negotiations, is being severely tested.

Hamas, and its armed wing, Izzidin al-Qassem, have tailored their sabotage strategy by attacking the soft underbelly of Israeli public opinion. Knowing that support inside Israel proper for Jewish settlements in the occupied territories is waning, Hamas is now deliberately striking inside Israel proper, at poor working- class neighbourhoods.

Afula, the scene of last week's bombing, and Hadera both show high levels of support for the right-wing Likud. Hadera, like Afula, is close to the old 1949 armistice line dividing Israel from the occupied West Bank. It is also close to Israeli Arab villages. Fear of Arabs is swiftly whipped up in towns such as these.

All the signs are that public support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is lower now than it has been since the signing of the September accords. In Hadera yesterday people were asking: 'How can there be peace? The Arabs don't want it.' Anat Azoulay, a 26- year-old hairdresser, who was sitting in the bus-station when the explosion happened, said: 'All Arabs should be moved out of Israel.'

Even those who once had hopes for the peace process said now they despaired, as Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, had failed to prove that he could control the militants. 'Arafat may want peace, but Hamas is stronger than him,' said Shuki Shambi, an Israeli student.

Throughout Israel there is a mood of heightened anxiety and confusion. With Independence Day celebrated today, and more Hamas attacks threatened, Israeli flags are flying in unprecedented numbers all over the country, demonstrating a surge of nationalism. Yesterday anti-Arab demonstrations broke out immediately after the bombing and Israeli right-wingers called for the ousting of Mr Rabin.

The Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, repeat again and again that there is 'no other choice' but to pursue the Oslo peace deal, and insist they will not be pushed off course by the extremists. However, their leadership appears faltering and hesitant.

Pro-peace activists in Israel are fearful that Mr Rabin is losing the initiative in Israeli eyes. In August, he took a dramatic step in pursuit of peace by recognising the Palestine Liberation Organisation. To do this was to risk outraging public opinion, but Mr Rabin carried it off with the confidence of a statesmen, largely taking the public with him.

As the violence has escalated, however, Mr Rabin, who prides himself on being 'Mr Security', has appeared cautious, failing to take the big steps - for example, removing some settlers - which are needed to truly boost the peace process.

Palestinian public opinion has become cynical due to the lack of clear gains as yet, and the same applies to Israeli public opinion, which has also seen no gains. Yesterday was the original deadline for Israel's witdrawal from Jericho and the Gaza Strip but agreement has not been reached on many details.

Mr Arafat, who was visiting the European Parliament in Strasbourg, appealed to the international community yesterday to take responsibility for helping to implement the peace accords, warning that without urgent action the Middle East would be pushed 'into a whirlpool of total confusion, destruction and Balkanisation'. Mr Arafat said that it was growing increasingly difficult to control the activities of Hamas, as frustration grew with the slow pace of the peace process.

(Photograph omitted)